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Annihilation starring Natalie Portman: Book vs Movie #book2movies [review]

I mostly liked both Annihilation, the first book in Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and the movie by science fiction maestro Alex Garland (Ex Machina, 28 Days Later and Never Let Me Go)Vandermeer himself has said the film is a ‘very liberal adaptation’ which is putting it mildly. The concepts that make you think, the suspense that gives you the jitters give the book its power, some of that is lost in the movie’s attempt to give vision to ideas that may work better in the imagination.

About the book:

Annihilation is set in Area X, a region of the country that has been cut off for decades. Numerous expeditions have been sent to uncover its mysteries, all of which have failed. Sometimes the members of these other expeditions have wandered back home, sometimes not. The twelfth expedition a small group of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the mission leader; and the book’s narrator, a biologist. 
“They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it's the surprises that came across the border with them and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another that change everything.

The movie’s logline:

A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don't apply.

Book vs Movie

Today, I’ll go over a few points of differentiation. Reader beware, some spoilers ahead.

The Writing on the Wall 

When I read Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation I was fascinated by the plant-like structure dubbed ‘the crawler’ growing on what ‘the biologist’ calls the tower. The crawler is a fungus, up close there are tiny tendrils that vibrate with life as they spell out a mysterious message in verse on the wall that the biologist literally sees breathing. Her need to read the entire message on that wall, as it spirals slowly downward is as much a motivating force as it is to learn what happened to her husband when he came to Area X on his expedition. In the book, he dies about a year after returning home, never really becoming whole again. In the film, this entire element is missing. Instead, Natalie Portman, the biologist, goes on the mission when her husband (Oscar Isaac) returns from his expedition radically changed, on the point of death. We never see or hear anything about the writing on the wall. And we never do see that ‘tower.’ My biggest disappointment.
I was picturing something more like moss, shaped into letters, words, sentences, tiny filaments swaying.

The Beasts of the Southern Wild

Alligators, bears and wolves—or something like that—Oh my! I suppose because it’s difficult to fashion onscreen fear from the kind of psychological trauma the book describes, director Alex Garland added CGI beasts for the women to battle with. Seeing Natalie Portman drag Tessa Thompson out of the jaws of the gigantic alligator gives us a brief adrenaline rush along with a case of the giggles. In the novel, there are no real (or CGI) beasts. It’s what might be there, the suspense of that discovery, that creates the fear, that takes its toll on the women. Not a monster straight out of a Godzilla flick.

Look into my eyes

Much of the intrigue and mistrust in the book is created by the psychologist in charge of the mission. The members of the expedition are knowingly put under hypnosis to get through the barrier into Area X. Once there, her power creates a whole new level of concern because she uses it to manipulate the Anthropologist and the Surveyer. The Biologist is unaffected after coming into contact with the fungus growth on wall so she fakes it. Who can be trusted is the key question here. Jennifer Jason Leigh is cold as ice, ruthless but that element, the women’s psyches is diminished.

What the shimmer!

In the movie, the shimmer is what they call the border between Area X and the rest of the country. In the book it’s just that. A border. The lack of special effects in Vandermee’s novel left it up to my imagination vs the colorful veil the women walk through to no effect. Not a ripple. 

Human Topiaries

While we saw a glimpse of plants taking on human forms, we’re not given one of my favorite scenes from the movie. One of the women—Tessa Thompson—actually sprouting buds and leaves from her arms, becoming flowering topiary, before our eyes.


The being that mirrors Portman’s biologist at the movie’s end doesn’t exist in the book. I couldn’t find an image to share but it’s metallic looking, almost like a mannequin, no eyes, ears, mouth, vaguely like a space alien in form. That whole final scene where the creature begins to replace the biologist simply isn’t in the book. While we are given to understand that the biologist’s husband (Oscar Isaac) has been replaced by something alien—alien as in the sense of something foreign—has replicated and replaced her husband genetically, we are also given to understand it’s a match in name only. All the things that make us human—our emotions, memories, connections—don’t exist. Watching the scene, as the creature mirrors every move, ultimately pressing her forcefully up against the wall like something out of a rape film, I wasn’t sure whether the creature was trying to become the biologist or have aggressive sex with her. 

While the book makes you think, trying like hell to figure out what it all means, the movie is visually stunning, compelling if at times not only straying from the book but laughably so. (Those CGI beasts.) Still, all in all, it's one of those films you want to see. Like The Shape of Water, it’s not the kind of movie you see every day.